‘The E Stands For Equity’: How 2 New City Plans Seek To Tackle Racial And Economic Segregation

CTA Blue Line station in Wicker Park
Passengers exit a blue line train at the Damen Blue Line stop in the Wicker Park neighborhood. Chicago's transit-oriented development ordinance has helped attract investment and young white professionals to neighborhoods along the Blue Line. But activists say that investment has driven up housing prices that have led to the displacement of many Latino residents. Bill Healy / WBEZ News
CTA Blue Line station in Wicker Park
Passengers exit a blue line train at the Damen Blue Line stop in the Wicker Park neighborhood. Chicago's transit-oriented development ordinance has helped attract investment and young white professionals to neighborhoods along the Blue Line. But activists say that investment has driven up housing prices that have led to the displacement of many Latino residents. Bill Healy / WBEZ News

‘The E Stands For Equity’: How 2 New City Plans Seek To Tackle Racial And Economic Segregation

Along the Blue Line L route in Chicago’s Logan Square community, new apartment buildings are part of the skyline, attracting young white professionals, increasing property values and displacing longtime Latino families.

On the South and West sides, Green Line stops are surrounded by vacant lots and Black neighborhoods that desire new housing and amenities.

Meanwhile, developers who receive city assistance to build new housing in fancy areas downtown and on the North Side sidestep requirements to add affordable housing.

The policies driving these developments are not intentionally racist and classist, but they contribute to the entrenched racial and economic segregation in Chicago. Now, two new city plans — intentionally released together this week — around public transportation and housing seek to reverse decades of disinvestment in Black and Latino communities.

“Chicago is a great example of how structurally racist policies can lead to structurally racist outcomes, and this is a piece of an attempt to confront that,” said Dan Lurie, policy chief for Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “We’re talking about racial and gender equity. It’s not a euphemism for something else.”

The “e” stands for equity

In 2013, the city first passed a wonky ordinance called Transit-Oriented Development, or TOD, which places requirements on developments near CTA stops in an effort to make neighborhoods more vibrant, increase density and reduce parking spots. Incentivized developers like it because they save money by spending less on parking.

In 2018, WBEZ reported on how TOD leaves some residents behind along racial lines. More than 1,000 housing units had been approved near the California Avenue Blue Line station in Logan Square. Since 2000, the Latino population there has fallen by nearly 20,000. No longer a majority Latino community, as it was from 1980 to 2010, Logan Square in recent years has attracted thousands of young white professionals and scores of investments. The area bustles with cafes, bars and urban nightlife.

A new report by the city analyzed TOD development between 2016 and 2019: Almost 90% of new TOD projects took place in the North Side, Northwest Side, downtown and around the West Loop. There was little activity near stations on the South and West sides.

Areas near rail stations eligible for TOD benefits but that have not seen TOD activity have 40% more residents of color and 23% more low-income residents.

The task force — comprised of 80 people including city officials, grassroots activists and housing organizers — say eTOD is necessary. The “e” stands for equity.

“eTOD is saying stop — that’s not how we want to build communities,” said Roberto Requejo, a task force member and program director for Elevated Chicago, which is a longtime eTOD advocacy group.

“The process itself was as important as the product,” Requejo said. “Some of the things more exciting about it is it addresses the TOD inequities we’ve experienced in the past.”

Recent projects in Woodlawn and an affordable housing building in Logan Square are projects they championed and are seen as equitable successes.

The policy plan bakes citywide coordination into the process. Any TOD project that comes along has to look at the racial impact. There’s an annual city performance review and a strategy to get public land to developers committed to benefitting surrounding communities and adding more flexibility in zoning and permits.

Ensuring access to amenity-rich communities

Another task force convened last November focused on updating the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO), which was enacted in 2007 and updated in 2015. It’s a key tool that has provided working families a chance to live in posh neighborhoods.

The ARO requires residential developments that receive city financial assistance, or that involve city-owned land, to provide a percentage of units at affordable rents. However, the ordinance allows developers to opt out of building affordable housing by paying a fee. Half of the ARO fees paid by developers who choose not to build affordable housing on site go toward the city’s Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, which assists families in poverty. And developers have paid tens of millions of dollars into that fund.

Critics of the ARO system say it prevents working families, seniors, people with disabilities and people of color from accessing amenity-rich communities. WBEZ also reported on what developers paid to bypass the requirement to provide affordable units in their properties.

The inclusionary housing task force has been meeting for months, and the group released a report that calls for fewer fees paid, more family-sized units and more units for people with disabilities.

“A lot of the work that we are tasked with in government is breaking down the barriers that are making it hard to create a more diverse environment across the city. But there are individual choices we all make that contribute to the perpetuation of our segregation or the breaking down of that,” said Marisa Novara, the city’s housing commissioner.

There’s a 45-day comment period, and the ordinance is expected to be updated in the winter.

Some housing activists and members of the Chicago City Council’s progressive caucus are pleased with the plan.

“We are excited about [the] recommendations because what they point to is saying we need a public policy but we need a policy that actually works for the people,” said Noah Moskawitz, an organizer with ONE Northside who sat on the task force.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.